I'm so thrilled to see my first feature article in print! Check it out in the January issue of Blue Water Sailing, or take a quick glance below. I'll be dreaming about Pisco Sours while we sand the hull (for the final time!) this afternoon.
I forgot to mention that we broke our steering cable two days before arriving in Panama, mostly because we’ve been sitting on the dock and its absence hasn’t been an issue. But there is a reason we havent taken the boat anywhere since weve been here, and it's not only because the swell has been so big. With Christmas and New Year’s thwarting our hopes of receiving replacement parts within a few days of arriving, our planned week in the marina stretched into three and we began to really miss being able to throw off the dock lines and go. Access to laundry, showers, and wifi makes life much more convenient, but being able to anchor where we like and having the freedom to move on a whim is part of the reason we live on a boat.
Marina Carenero sits in a corner of a small cove just across the water from the relative bustle of Bocas Town. It’s a mostly quiet place... until evening, when a repetitive and irritating mix of calypso and reggaeton starts up at the local club just around the bend. The weathered wooden building hangs over the water, its windowless facade decorated with playing cards and poker chips in an airbrush-style mural, highlighted by sweeping washes of color and a couple of faded palm trees. Substitute the cards and palm trees for an American flag and you’re in Lake Winnepesaukee. Sounds of drum and bass interspersed with accordion and airhorn don’t so much drift across the water as march toward any open hatches, where they remain, uninvited, sometimes until 6am. It’s a bit of a mystery, really; anytime we’ve driven past while the music is going the place is nearly empty. We can usually spot at least one guy sort of sway-dancing, beer in hand, but as far as I’m concerned one man a party does not make. (Unless it’s this one friend of mine - I'll call him "Ted" - standing in the living room drinking a Rainier, bouncing and singing along to old reggae on the record player after having spent the day out on the river casting for steelhead.)
Anyway, besides the neverending solo danceparty whose greatest hits play on repeat each night, the marina is quiet. It’s home to about 15 boats, 10 of which it's safe to say are there permanently. Boats seem respond to Panama’s sun and rain the same way their expat owners do: they age more quickly and become less likely to ever leave as time goes on. Staying on top of maintenance and keeping things clean in this climate is vital, but the atmosphere around Bocas Town make it an easy place to shirk responsibility, put off small jobs - "mañana..." - and blend into the backdrop of slow decay, claiming to be living the dream.
We’ve passed the time waiting for the new steering cable to arrive trying, and mostly failing, to dry out gear and laundry and air the boat out. We spread out the charts nightly, planning and replanning the next part of our trip and routing our passage through the Pacific. I’ve read every issue of Outside Magazine we have onboard, and can list their top rated "superfoods" both chromatically and chronologically by month of popularity. And when we run out of responsible things to do, we feed the wildlife and set off fireworks.
Today we're excited to be off to Cusapin for a few days. Check out the map to see where we are. In the meantime, here are a few scenes of life at Marina Carenero.
The swell has been huge here. Depending on who you talk to, we're getting once-in-a-season or once-in-a-decade waves this week. Unfortunately for me that means a break from surfing, but I have been trying to get out and at least take a few photos. We went to check out one of the biggest and meanest waves around the other day to get a close up look at just how much water really moves there. I snapped a few photos. Apparently so did Kelly Slater. And even he passed it up for something less punishing.
Bocas del Toro is a place of contrast and interruption. Almost every day the beating sun is temporarily eclipsed by sudden downpours, or the other way around. The soft sounds of wind, waves and the occasional bird are interrupted each morning by the blaring descent of incoming jets, only a couple hundred feet overhead, and by the criss-crossing of pangas (water taxis) throughout the day and well into the evening. Locals sell fruit and crafts in the afternoon heat while groups of backpackers in search of all day breakfast pass by. The vegetation is lush and the houses cheerfully painted, but waste and garbage congregate along the shoreline and pile up beneath the houses of the local villages. Children walk barefoot through the fetid mud and trash. Only a few hundred feet down the path, the grounds of rental houses and hostels are strewn with surfboards and lounge chairs, and barefoot girls in their bikinis lazily sip pina coladas and daquiris on the porches of waterfront restaurants.
We've been here nearly two weeks and we're beginning to be able to navigate our way through some of these contrasts and see Bocas through a more finely filtered lens. Though many of the restaurants on the waterfront in Bocas Town have nearly identical appearances and menus, we've learned which ones are worth stopping at (few) and which ones will disappoint (most). We don't try to make a run for it when there seems to be a break in the rain - looks can be deceiving. We buy bread from the shy little girl who brings it from her house behind the marina down to the dock every few days instead of the loaves that mysteriously last weeks on end from the grocery store. It's $1.50 for five big rolls here on the dock, and they're usually still warm. We pass on the vivaciousness of the crowd, where travelers meet and exchange stories and tips and phone numbers and questions ("How long have you been traveling?" "What's your destination?"), and seek rather the intimacy of more ordinary conversation, where questions are more mundane ("What is your dog's name?" "How did you break your wrist?"). Sometimes it's nice to just talk about the weather. To just be here.
I don't want to imply that we're somehow being exposed to some hidden side of Panama, or that the only authentic way to experience Bocas is to stay away from fellow travelers or do as the locals do. We're tourists, too, and we're only just beginning to distinguish between the things and places that add real value to our daily lives here and the things that we can happily do without. I recently read an article by a journalist who was traveling in Sao Paulo. He wrote:
"Tourists are immigrants who audit. We feel the dislocation yet bear none of the responsibility. We pick up a few words; we don't abandon our mother tongue. We come for the enticements but we don't stay for the test.
Our fleetingness deprives us of depth but rewards us with intensity." (Thomas Swick, "Faces in a Crowd")
We have no intention of becoming immigrants here, but I guess we're beginning to sacrifice some of the intensity we first experienced for a greater serving of depth.